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Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Tea Kettles to Task Chairs

by Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden

Design in Canada is an ambitious project: a richly illustrated survey, in under 300 pages, of half a century of Canadian design. The high quality of the result is a testament to the authors’ comprehensive research and their judicious inclusion of only the juiciest fruits of those labours.
Both authors are steeped in their subject – Cora Golden is a prominent design writer, while Rachel Gotlieb is curator of Toronto’s Design Exchange, whose collection houses examples of many of the objects featured in the book. Much of their focus here is on the design heyday of the 1950s and ’60s. This is a reader-friendly move, because it’s easy to see from our present vantage why classic status should be accorded to retro pieces like Hugh Spencer’s Project G stereo (1963), with its Scandinavian lines and radical globular speakers, or Russell Spanner’s witty, angular Ruspan Originals line of lounge chairs (1950). It’s less clear whether collectors in 2050 will be cherishing mint-condition examples of Karim Rashid’s million-selling Garbo garbage can (1996), lovingly photographed though it is.
The emphasis on the postwar decades is also rooted in broader historical trends. After years of thrift, soaring levels of disposable income among the middle classes created a hunger for consumer goods. This consumerism dovetailed with the burgeoning modernist movement – and the availability of new materials such as plastics – to fuel an explosion of pioneering design in furniture, housewares, and electrical and electronic goods. Design in Canada’s achievement lies in revealing just how much of this revolution took place in this country. Who knew, for instance, that up to the mid-1960s as many as 174 companies had made radios in Canada?
Yet these decades also saw designers struggle with manufacturers who believed that producing new Canadian designs was too risky and opted instead to copy the styles of American behemoths like furniture maker Herman Miller. Sadly, this inferiority complex seems to persist today: while Karim Rashid has become a poster boy for contemporary Canadian design, the authors note that “he needed to move to New York City to achieve this distinction.”
For the most part, Design in Canada is organized thematically, surveying furniture, lighting, ceramics, and other groups of artifacts in turn. Copious photographs are accompanied by extensive captions that, at their best, evoke the personalities of the chief architects of Canada’s postwar design revolution – men (and they were almost all men) like Stefan Siwinski, Robin Bush, and the aforementioned Spencer and Spanner. We learn that for Russell Spanner quality control “involved flinging the finished product around the factory or testing whether it supported his 250-pound weight by jumping on it.”
Less gripping is a series of essays on the movements that have influenced the last 50 years of Canadian design, from modernism to Pop and postmodernism and beyond. The essays tend toward dry chronology, which is perhaps inevitable given their necessarily synoptic nature. There are tantalizing hints of sweeping themes and controversies that have informed the Canadian design scene, such as the constant flip-flop in support for design from various levels of government and the perpetual struggle to persuade the conservative consumer (as well as the cautious manufacturer) of the desirability of innovative design. But the curious reader is left wanting more analysis – and more passion in the telling.
This is a quibble. Design in Canada’s appeal is primarily visual, and here the book can’t be faulted. The spacious page design gives the 200-odd photographs all the prominence they deserve. In many cases, the objects have been cropped from their backgrounds and float in splendid isolation over lush, creamy fields. It is these photographs of innovative Canadian design to which the reader will return, to enjoy the ingenious, the cheeky, the inarguably beautiful, and, in a few cases, the seemingly silly.